When Eamon De Valera arrived in the United States in 1919, few would have predicted the turmoil that his arrival would cause to prominent members of the Irish-American community, yet disagreements between Dev and the powerful Friends of Irish Freedom would destabilise the campaign for American recognition of the Irish Republic.
It is a common understanding that no movements are exempt from the occasional occurrence of infighting and squabbling. Even when events in time happen at a critical juncture it appears there can be no escaping the clutches of internal conflict. The long and bitter dispute between Éamon de Valera and the Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) provides a prime example of how different personalities and viewpoints can clash between factions fighting for the same cause. Indeed, the great benefit of hindsight affords us the opportunity to identify how events leading to the President de Valera’s arrival in the United States in June 1919 provided an indication there would be an eventual ideological split between Irish-American nationalists and Irish republicans.
A unique brand of Irish-American Nationalism
In order to better understand the main reasons for the conflict between Dev and the Friends of Irish Freedom, it is important to lay down some context surrounding the ideological beliefs which the most prominent members within the Friends held regarding the Irish question, particularly within an American context. Perhaps the two most important figures who spearheaded the Friends of Irish Freedom in America were Judge Daniel Cohalan and ‘the Old Fenian’, John Devoy. From the outset of its formation, the Friends of Irish Freedom would be defined by its distinct form of Irish-American nationalism. In the view of Cohalan and Devoy it was crucial to display a high level of loyalty to America and American values in order to avoid any potential criticism that they were merely foreign agents attempting to influence press and public opinion on matters which did not directly concern the United States. This attitude would remain a prevailing theme for many Irish-Americans throughout this period and was dramatically heightened following US entry into the First World War in April 1917.
The United States’ decision to intervene in the war in Europe came at a time when many Irish exiles had found refuge in many of its cities following activity in the Easter Rising of 1916, with many remaining active in the fight for Irish independence. However, American entry into the war would subsequently have a major impact on the politics of Irish-American nationalism. In keeping with their mantra of maintaining a strong image of American patriotism, Cohalan and Devoy believed the interests of Ireland were best served by remaining loyal to American judgements and downplaying public activity which encouraged self-determination for Ireland. As a result of this, criticism of America’s newfound ally, Britain, practically ceased to exist. The caution taken by the FOIF culminated in Cohalan denying an Irish Race Convention being held in 1917 in fear of strong repercussions from the government and a possible shutdown of the organisation. This decision can be viewed as the beginning of Irish nationalists’ mistrust of the Friends of Irish Freedom’s hierarchy, a mistrust which would continue to develop and fester as events unfolded. Such was the level of discontent, from many who deemed the Friends’ approach too cautious, that the Irish Progressive League was established in October 1917 as a breakaway from the FOIF. This newly established organisation became a new focal point for those who had become disillusioned with the ultra-American approach of Cohalan and the Friends of Irish Freedom and while they were still linked to the organisation their actions would prove to be a point of contention amongst the hierarchy within the Friends as they tried to maintain their unique brand of Irish-Americanism.
A particular low point for Cohalan and his image within sections of the Irish exile community in America was his closing address to the Irish Race Convention of 1918, in which he emphasised the importance of the Americanism of the Irish race within America. In addition to this, Joe McGarrity claims to have witnessed Cohalan drape himself in the American flag and proclaim President Wilson the greatest of all presidents. This incident served to add further fuel to the growing belief amongst the Irish in America that Cohalan was primarily concerned with American interests. However, in spite of the minor difficulties which the FOIF faced, the impact of the Third Irish Race Convention in February 1919 saw the Friends rise to their highest point of prominence with membership rising above 70,000 by December. While many of the underlying issues had yet to be resolved, largely between the Friends’ hierarchy and Irish exiles, it was clear that the organisation had developed a widespread appeal to Irish-Americans with a vested interest in supporting Irish nationalism, in whatever manner it was manifested.
Clash of Personalities or Ideological Split?
De Valera’s relationship with the Irish-Americans appeared to be doomed from the beginning as his arrival came at a particular high point of scepticism, held by many Irish exiles, for the Friends of Irish Freedom and their approach to resolving the Irish question. To make matters worse, upon arriving in New York, Dev immediately bypassed Cohalan and Devoy and stayed with Liam Mellows before swiftly travelling to Philadelphia for a meeting with McGarrity. While it is unclear whether this move was intentional or not, it can be argued that its significance is increased considering events that would follow. Having finally met Cohalan and Devoy during his unveiling at the Hotel Astoria-Waldorf in New York on 23 June, it did not take long for a difference of opinions to emerge. Having stated his intentions to create a bond scheme which would raise funds for Dáil Éireann activities in Ireland, de Valera was met with resistance from Cohalan and Devoy who were opposed to the notion of detracting focus away from the FOIF’s fundraising objectives which drove their propaganda campaign throughout the United States. However, in an attempt to overcome this initial hostility and demonstrate their commitment to de Valera’s aims and objectives, the Friends made a concerted effort to cooperate with the Sinn Féin President and his envoy which included Harry Boland, Patrick McCartan, and James O’Mara. They agreed to wind up the Irish Victory Fund and support de Valera’s bond scheme, which was set up under the name of the American Commission for Irish Independence.
Despite this attempt at reconciliation further hostilities were never far on the horizon. Minor disputes continued to frequently emerge, most of which stemmed from de Valera’s lack of understanding of how Irish-American politics operated through the Friends of Irish Freedom. This misunderstanding quite often led to actions and words which were contradictory to the values and principles which Cohalan and Devoy wanted the Friends to strictly adhere to. De Valera gradually came to the realisation that his objectives were in stark contrast to Cohalan’s. As early as October 1919, he had begun to consider the formation of a new Irish-American organisation, one in which he would have complete control over the direction and purpose. While news of this had spread to Devoy and Cohalan, neither reacted rashly but rather encouraged FOIF members to continue supporting the bond drive initiative. However, the dispute which followed a de Valera interview in the Westminster Gazette in February 1920 proved one too many for the fraught FOIF-Dev relationship. When it was argued that Irish independence would jeopardise British security, de Valera cited the United States relationship with Cuba following the Platt Amendment as an example for potentially gauging any future Anglo-Irish relationship, post-Irish independence. Despite claims that he was merely quoting a portion of the amendment, de Valera’s statement instigated a reaction which pitted Irish-Americans against one another.
‘The Trial of de Valera’
Devoy now used his influence in the Gaelic American to launch a scathing attack on de Valera in which he criticised the Sinn Féin President’s judgements and questioned what mandate he had to act in the manner he had been during his tour of the United States. De Valera insisted these attacks were coordinated in an attempt to dismantle any chance of success for the bond drive. In addition, he believed it was Cohalan who was orchestrating the entire charade and as a result he downplayed the significance of the true ideological differences between himself and the FOIF, reducing it down to a mere clash of personalities between himself and Cohalan. Further squabbling ensued between both parties with Dev questioning the loyalty of the FOIF and their desire the help resolve the Irish question. This conjured a predictable response from Cohalan who maintained that it was as an American citizen that he supported Ireland. Similarly he claimed de Valera had no right to interfere in American affairs. This war of words between de Valera and Cohalan eventually culminated in an emergency meeting of the FOIF on 19 March 1920, which became known as the ‘Trial of de Valera’. This meeting, conducted in private without de Valera’s knowledge, was arranged to discuss the manner of his behaviour since his arrival in America and to demand that he leave immediately and return to Ireland. To the surprise of all in attendance, de Valera arrived at the Park Avenue Hotel in New York with Joseph McGarrity and Harry Boland. A dramatic scene unfolded and following a lengthy eight hours of heated discussion it was decided that de Valera would no longer meddle in affairs which were strictly of American concern and in return Cohalan promised he would do the same for matters which were solely Irish.
Three months passed without any major incidents reigniting the conflict between de Valera and the FOIF. However, the events in Chicago during June 1920 would set into motion events which would eventually lead to complete division and separation. Party conventions during presidential election years were historically important for Irish-Americans who often sought to secure pledges and resolutions from candidates in return for what was usually a high percentage of the Irish-American vote for that candidate and the party. The upcoming Republican Party Convention for the 1920 election was no different and Cohalan sought to present the case of Irish independence to the resolutions committee. He firmly believed that searching for just independence was the right course of action to take, as calling for an Irish Republic could be detrimental to their overall aims and feed into the pro-British propaganda, which Cohalan directed so much of his and the FOIF’s energy towards dissuading. As a result of this stance, Cohalan recognised the need to keep his plans hidden from de Valera, whom he felt he could not trust. Naturally, this planned secrecy failed and de Valera, feeling offended by this attempt to bypass him, set about leading his own delegation to the convention and presenting his case to the resolutions committee for an Irish Republic. Despite being advised by numerous people to set aside his differences this one time and allow Cohalan to play the American political game, de Valera advanced forward with his resolution which was comprehensively rejected by a 12-1 vote. In contrast, Cohalan’s resolution was adopted by the narrowest of margins by receiving a single vote in favour at 7-6. Crucially however, the highly public level of disunity displayed by the Irish and Irish-American nationalists at the Republican convention left Republicans begging the question how they could move forward and give support to the Irish cause when the issue itself was the source of so much turmoil between the different Irish factions. As a result, when de Valera publicly renounced the Cohalan resolution, the Republican committee agreed to completely remove it from their agenda of resolutions.
Final Dispute and Division
The differences which had been in existence between de Valera and the FOIF, since Dev’s arrival in June 1919, had now fully spilled into the public sphere. The Irish World, a paper which traditionally supported Cohalan and the FOIF had now insisted its readers abandon the organisation and ‘Cohalan’s Americans’. Reports of political infighting were not perceived well back in Ireland, they were in stark contrast to the life and death situation unfolding throughout the country as guerrilla warfare intensified. Confusion and disarray dominated FOIF branch meetings throughout the United States as members were torn between supporting Cohalan or de Valera. Further hostilities arose as the Irish Progressive League was officially expelled from associate membership of the FOIF in July 1920 as the organisation sought to distance itself from the radical behaviour which had become a fundamental approach taken by members of the IPL. All of these factors of disharmony and unrest combined to provide de Valera with the pretext he needed to submit a proposal to dramatically reform the organisational structure of the FOIF in late August 1920. Unsurprisingly, this proposal was met with resent and anger which in-turn led to a meeting of the Friends of Irish Freedom National Council on 17 September, akin to that which Cohalan had previously held a few months previous in an attempt to remove de Valera from the situation. Yet again, de Valera and his envoy arrived unannounced causing chaotic scenes to unfold. His proposals were castigated and promptly rejected by the National Council leading him to stage a final walk-out on the FOIF. The following day he announced his intentions to create a new organisation to rival the Friends, called the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic (AARIR). On 17 November 1920, de Valera formally established the AARIR at the Raleigh Hotel in Washington causing membership of the Friends of Irish Freedom to rapidly decline as a steady stream of members defected to Dev’s new organisation. Regular membership of the Friends fell from 100,000 in November 1920 to roughly 20,000 by mid-1921, while de Valera alleged to have upwards of 500,000 members in his new organisation.
There can be no denying that the Friends of Irish Freedom never truly recovered from its dispute with Éamon de Valera. The flocking of thousands of its members towards Dev’s newly formed American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic proved to be a blow from which Cohalan and the Friends would never truly recover. From the point of view of the Irish-Americans, de Valera had diminished years of work in a matter of months by leaving the Friends deprived of their mass appeal, which in turn meant they could no longer apply political pressure on Congress or indeed continue their propaganda campaign against anti-Irish sentiment throughout the United States. There is no telling what may have been achieved had both Irish and Irish-American factions worked harmoniously throughout this period, towards the same objectives and without constant bitter disputing. Indeed, the potential of the Irish-American power was recognised, perhaps most poignantly, by the British Ambassador to the United States, Auckland Geddes, who commented how the Republican convention incident of 1920 perfectly encapsulated the influence the Irish could potentially exert on American politics, if they could only proceed wisely.
- Written by Conor Harte
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